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Braves rally to shock Nats in 11


Braves rally to shock Nats in 11

In their first seven years of existence, the Washington Nationals lost plenty of ballgames in devastating fashion. They lost on walk-off homers. They lost on walk-off throwing errors. They lost on walk-off wild pitches. They even once lost on a walk-off balk from a guy making his debut appearance with the organization.

But most of those losses, crushing as they felt at the time, didn't carry much weight in the grand scheme of things. Instead of losing 102 games at season's end, they would lose 103.

This, on the other hand, this was different. A blown nine-run lead against a division rival in the first game of perhaps the biggest series in the club's brief history? This was a crushing loss.

"It hurts. It hurts bad," reliever Tyler Clippard said after the Nationals turned a 9-0 lead into an 11-10, 11-inning loss to a Braves team suddenly 2 12 games back in the NL East.

Never mind the fact this was the largest lead blown in franchise history, dating back to the Montreal Expos' inaugural season in 1969. It was the manner in which that 9-run was blown, and the manner in which a game that could have resulted in as stirring a victory as the Nationals have ever enjoyed into as upsetting a loss as they've ever experienced.

And it was the look on Davey Johnson's face as the 69-year-old skipper took the blame for letting this thing devolve into what it did.

"I feel bad," he said. "The guys played hard. It was probably, arguably the worst game I've ever managed in my life. I've never lost a 9-run lead when it was my part of the game to handle the pitching. It'll be hard for me to sleep. I had a worse night than the guys did."

For five innings, this was arguably as great a night as the Nationals had seen in a long time. Behind towering, three-run homers from Michael Morse and Ryan Zimmerman, they jumped out to a 9-0 lead that left the crowd of 34,228 in ecstasy even as a steady rain began to fall.

And with Stephen Strasburg on the mound, has a 9-0 lead ever felt safer?

"Ninety-nine times out of 100, we win that game," Clippard game.

Well, 99 percent is not 100 percent. And as Clippard later pointed out: "Baseball's weird. Anything can happen."

The meltdown began in the top of the sixth, with Strasburg still on the mound. He hadn't been his sharpest all night, and it finally caught up with him when he gave up four hits in a span of five batters, including Brian McCann's home run and Eric Hinske's double off the top of the right-field wall.

"I felt like he just wasn't going after them," Johnson said. "He wasted a lot of pitches. He really doesn't know who he is at times. He doesn't trust his stuff."

Did Strasburg let his intensity level dip at all with a 9-run lead?

"Myself, I'm always intense out there," he said. "I don't like pitching to the scoreboard. To me, it was still a 0-0 ballgame. But I'd say in the grand scheme of things, it can be tough. Obviously you put up a lot of runs early, and you just kind of take your mind out of it for a split second and they get back in it and it gets to be crunch time."

By the time the inning ended, with Michael Gonzalez allowing two inherited runners to score, the Nationals' lead was down to 9-4.

Then came perhaps Johnson's biggest managerial mistake: He summoned Drew Storen for the eighth inning, one day after the reliever made his season debut three months removed from elbow surgery. Storen immediately gave up a hit and a walk, and Johnson immediately emerged from the dugout seeking the ball.

"There's a few things I'd take back," Johnson said, declining to offer specifics. "I mean, I don't even want to go there. But that's my part of the game. Those are my matchups."

Sean Burnett replaced Storen and only poured more gasoline on the fire. He got two quick strikeouts but then allowed four straight batters to reach base, with four runs scoring in the process. Just like that, the lead was down to 9-8.

In the bullpen, Clippard suddenly had to prepare to pitch the ninth inning of a game he never expected he'd see.

"I was ready," the closer insisted.

Clippard, though, had struggled in each of his three previous outings, and he immediately got himself into trouble when he walked Dan Uggla, uncorked a wild pitch and then drilled the .118-hitting Paul Janish in the back. Two batters later, Michael Bourn crushed a two-run triple off the top of the fence, completing an improbable rally and putting the Nationals in a 10-9 deficit that left the entire ballpark in stunned silence.

"I'm a little concerned," Johnson said of his struggling closer. "He was a little wild tonight. He's not wild. He hasn't been wild at all in that role. But it never should have got to a 1-run lead. That's why I say it's my fault."

Suddenly down to their final three outs, Danny Espinosa reignited the crowd and the home dugout when he blasted a 98-mph fastball from Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel into the left-field bullpen.

Just like that, the game was tied 10-10 and headed to extra innings. And just like that, the Nationals found a way to lose on an error, a passed ball and a bloop single.

The top of the 11th began with Uggla rapping a hard shot to third base. Zimmerman made an impressive, lunging play to snag the ball, then pirouetted and fired to first base. The ball was thrown a good 10 feet wide of the bag, landing near the rolled up tarp along the right-field stands.

"I got a good grip on it, and I had to just turn and fire," Zimmerman said. "That was my only shot. I don't want to catch a ball like that and then not even attempt to throw him out. I think that's the play, and I would do it over again if I had the same opportunity."

Rookie catcher Sandy Leon, who had entered the game four innings earlier after Jesus Flores complained of a stiff back, couldn't handle a low pitch from Tom Gorzelanny. That allowed Uggla to take third base and forced the Nationals infield to play way in. Which allowed Janish's blooper to fall in just beyond the outstretched reach of shortstop Ian Desmond and allowed Uggla to score the eventual game-winning run.

The Nationals went down quietly in the bottom of the 11th, and the home clubhouse was even quieter at the end of a 4-hour, 21-minute marathon that ended in crushing fashion.

They had all of 13 hours to contemplate it before they have to retake the field for the first game of Saturday's doubleheader. How do you bounce back so quickly from such a devastating loss?

"Same way we'd come back if we won 3-2," Zimmerman insisted. "It's one game. Obviously it's an emotional game for people watching, and it gets us a little bit. But in the grand scheme of things, it's one game. We show up tomorrow just like we do after every other game."

It sounds simple enough. Whether the Nationals can actually do it remains to be seen.

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Report: Under Armour taking over MLB jerseys in 2020

Report: Under Armour taking over MLB jerseys in 2020

Majestic’s reign as the maker of MLB jerseys are about to come to an end. 

In 2020, Fanatics and Under Armour will be teaming to make on-field jerseys and apparel for all MLB teams, according to a Sports Business Journal report. 

The news outlet also reports that the deal means the MLB’s licensing relations with Nike will be over as well. 

Under Armour will produce the jerseys starting in Spring Training of the 2020 season, and “broad apparel rights” will go to Fanatics. 

New Era will continue to be the maker of MLB hats. 

Given that Maryland native Kevin Plank founded Under Armour, and that the business' headquarters are in Baltimore, it’s sure to be a splash with baseball fans in the DMV.

You can read the full Sports Business journal report here. 

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Early look at the Nationals' biggest questions this offseason

Early look at the Nationals' biggest questions this offseason

Here is an early look at the biggest questions facing the Washington Nationals as they embark on another offseason in their quest to build a championship team...

What to do with Wilson Ramos and the catcher position?

The Nationals' biggest question entering this offseason is without a doubt at catcher with All-Star Wilson Ramos on the mend after having the ACL in his right knee repaired on Friday. Not only is the recovery a long one - he could be out until well into the 2017 season - it is the second time he's had the ligament fixed. At 29, his viability as a primary catcher moving forward is a real question. Even Ramos admitted he may have to transition to the American League with his next contract.

If Ramos does leave, behind him will be a significant hole on the Nationals. They have several in-house options, but none that are anywhere close to Ramos, who emerged this season as the best offensive catcher in baseball. Pedro Severino is a nice young player, but has a career .632 OPS in the minors. The drop-off on offense from Ramos to him would be significant. The same can be said about Jose Lobaton.

It won't be easy replacing Ramos with an external option, if that's the way the Nats opt to go. Catchers who can hit and play defense like him are a rarity. Matt Wieters of the Orioles would be the best option in free agency, but he's a year older and is also a step down offensively. Unless they like Wieters - who does happen to be represented by Scott Boras - they may have to trade for a new backstop, and that won't be easy either. 

This is all not to rule out the Nationals re-signing Ramos, but right now it's difficult to project what type of contract he will garner and whether that could fit in their plans. Surely it would be tough for them to offer a long-term deal, but maybe they make sense if he decides to take a short-term contract to reset for free agency either next offseason or the one after that.

Any major upgrades needed?

The Nationals are in an interesting spot, having won 95 games and the NL East, but with yet another disappointing end to their year. General manager Mike Rizzo loves to make big splashes in the offseason. Every single winter he does something aggressive and unexpected. What will he do this year? There aren't many areas where he could potentially upgrade, but that hasn't stopped him in the past.

If Ramos leaves, catcher is obviously the biggest need. But beyond that, the two major problem areas in their lineup this season were at shortstop and first base. Danny Espinosa played solid defense and hit 24 homers, but held an unsightly .209 batting average. His .552 OPS in the second half was worst in baseball among those with at least 165 at-bats. 

Espinosa is always looking over his shoulder this time of the year and just this past winter appeared to be the odd-man out when the Nats traded for Ben Revere and signed Daniel Murphy. Espinosa managed to overcome the odds and play 157 games. He has one year left on his contract, so one way or another the Nats will need to start thinking long-term about his position.

Shortstop is an easier situation to evaluate than first base, where Ryan Zimmerman is due to make $14 million each of the next two seasons and $18 million the year after that. He had the worst season of his career with a .642 OPS through 115 games. Bringing in a first baseman to flat-out replace Zimmerman seems unrealistic, given his contract. But perhaps they can find someone who plays both first base and left field, with Jayson Werth having just one year left on his deal.

Who will be the closer?

The Nationals found success in the ninth inning with Mark Melancon after they acquired him at the trade deadline in a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. But it was just a rental. Now Melancon is due for free agency and the Nats once again have questions at the position. They could opt to re-sign Melancon, or go with another free agent option. Aroldis Chapman, whom they have coveted in the past, will be available. So will Kenley Jansen, who just helped end their season with the Dodgers. It's an unusually deep crop of star closers and it would be a surprise if the Nationals didn't snag one of them. Another option would be to promote Shawn Kelley or Blake Treinen, but that would be out of the Nationals' character.

Are they content with the rotation?

If one were to pick the biggest reason the Nationals lost their NL Division Series against the Dodgers it would have to be the starting rotation. It was their most glaring weakness and it wasn't even close. This is despite the Nats being built on starting pitching and boasting one of the best regular season rotations in baseball. Losing Stephen Strasburg to injury didn't help, but they still had four capable starters left over. Max Scherzer struggled in Game 1, while Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross combined to pitch just 11 1/3 innings in their respective outings. 

If you look at the year as a whole, starting pitching was not a major concern. But the Nats are always aggressive in addressing their needs, whether big or small. They have top prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, but neither distinguished themselves this season. Do they sit tight and hope things improve, or do they try to make another game-changing move? With a weak free agent class, any outside upgrade would have to come through a trade. Also, Gonzalez' $12 million team option is definitely something to watch this winter.

Will extension talks with Harper heat up?

Both the Nationals and Bryce Harper, one could argue, may have incentive to back away from the negotiating table this winter, given the Nats have to be less confident in giving Harper a record-setting contract after his disappointing year, and that Harper may not be wise to sign his new deal when his stock has lowered. But if the Nats and Harper do not come to terms this winter, that sets up a lot more pressure for the following offseason. Harper has two years left on his contract. Heading into next offseason without a deal, with just one year remaining, would create a lot of uncertainty for all sides involved, including the fans who certainly want to see the 2015 MVP remain in Washington for a long time. The storyline would dominate their offseason.

This upcoming winter always seemed like the best time to broker a deal to avoid that scenario, but the timing has not worked out with Harper's production on the field. Also, would anyone be surprised if it turns out Harper was dealing with an injury this season that held him back at the plate? If it were a serious one, he wouldn't have kept playing. But any injury has to be factored in those discussions.

[RELATED: Bullpen, baserunning leads to Nats heartbreak]